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North Hempstead to require warnings on pentachlorophenol-treated utility poles

Judi Bosworth, Town Supervisor of North Hempstead, holds

Judi Bosworth, Town Supervisor of North Hempstead, holds a new warning label to be posted on utility poles to alert residents of its toxic preservatives, the first time a local municipality has called for such labeling, in Manhasset on Sept. 10, 2014. Credit: Heather Walsh

The Town of North Hempstead approved a law requiring warning labels be posted on utility poles to alert residents to a toxic preservative, the first time a local municipality has called for such labeling.

The town board approved the measure 7-0 at its meeting Tuesday night.

"People need to know that the poles have this hazardous chemical in them," Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said.

Installation of taller, thicker hurricane-resistant utility poles by PSEG Long Island this year had the unintended consequence of focusing awareness on the toxic wood preservative pentachlorophenol, commonly known as penta.

The 4.5-inch by 7-inch warning notices will say, "This pole contains a hazardous chemical. Avoid prolonged direct contact with this pole. Wash hands or other exposed areas thoroughly if contact is made."

The measure applies to any utility pole installed after Jan. 1 of this year and requires the notice be placed no more than 5 feet high on every fourth pole in a line. Penalties for failing to comply with the law start at $500. The measure takes effect in March.

PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir said the company believes labeling requirements should be left to the federal or state environmental authorities, which don't require labels on penta-laced poles.

"A requirement for different labeling, other than what is required by the EPA, would cause confusion and the incurrence of unnecessary cost by ratepayers," he said. He added PSEG officials were considering legal options.

About 95,000 of LIPA's 324,000 utility poles have been treated with penta, PSEG said. Overall, there are 540,000 poles on the Island. Verizon owns most of the rest.

Pentachlorophenol is banned for public use in the United States, but federal regulators allow it as a preservative in wood utility poles and railroad ties, among other limited industrial uses. The chemical is banned or severely restricted in 26 countries.

The LIRR's track ties are treated with creosote, not penta, an MTA spokesman said.

The Environmental Protection Agency describes pentachlorophenol as "extremely toxic" to humans from short-term exposure, whether ingested or inhaled, and it is listed as a "probable human carcinogen."

"In my opinion it's definitely a health issue," said Craig Mazzola, a resident of Williston Park, where two new poles are being installed. "Kids can go running around a pole, playing around a pole, and they [the utility] don't care," he said.

Residents of East Hampton first raised concerns about penta when they objected to 60-foot poles installed in village neighborhoods earlier this year. A study prepared for residents said penta levels in soil exceeded state standards.

PSEG on its website links to a page by Mike H. Freeman, an "independent wood scientist," who refers to documents citing penta's widespread use. Among them is a brochure that calls the chemical "the linemen's choice."

"Linemen prefer penta-treated poles because they are easy to work with and they are safe to work on," the brochure says. Penta-treated poles lessen the risk of electrocution, it states, because wood poles are not as conductive as metal poles.

The EPA's assessment says even short-term ingestion or inhalation of penta has resulted in effects on the respiratory tract, blood, kidney, liver, immune system, eyes, nose and skin. Neurological effects from longer-term exposure in humans have included lethargy, delirium, convulsions, increased heart rate and rapid breathing, the agency says.

The EPA classifies penta as a "probable human carcinogen" because of a "possible association between inhalation pentachlorophenol exposure and cancer," including Hodgkin's disease, soft tissue sarcoma, and acute leukemia. It noted, however, that the combined exposure to other toxins "may have contributed to the reported carcinogenic effects."

Poles treated with penta aren't labeled to prevent contact. PSEG's Weir said the EPA approval of penta for utility poles, and a 60-year record of its use, make warnings unnecessary.

Penta "has a long and proven track record for utility poles," he said. "We do not deem it necessary to put up warning signs."

The PSEG website also links to a page with a "voluntary information sheet" that is intended to be distributed with penta-treated wood. "Prolonged or repeated exposure to pentachlorophenol may present certain hazards," the sheet says.

Wood treated with penta "should not be used where it will be in frequent or prolonged contact with skin." Handling the wood requires chemically resistant gloves, and long pants and long-sleeve shirts are recommended. Clothing exposed to penta should be washed separately, the warning states.

A technical bulletin from the North American Wood Pole Coalition linked to the PSEG page contended: "Properly produced and used, pressure-treated wood utility poles pose no greater risk to the environment than growing the wheat used to bake your next loaf of bread, and present far less personal risk than driving to your local grocery store to purchase that bread."

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